More support is needed to help protect Jerusalem's Palestinian identity in the face of factors including Israel's continued settlement policy, participants at a symposium in the capital were told yesterday. The Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR) hosted the forum focusing on the future of East Jerusalem which, along with the West Bank and Gaza Strip, has been occupied by Israel since 1967.
The city's complex history, religious significance for all three monotheistic religions, current problems and its future, were addressed by speakers including Dr Mohammed Ghosheh, a historian specialising in Jerusalem and its Islamic architecture, and Dr Ahmed Jameel Azem, an ECSSR researcher. Khalil Tafakji, of the Arab Studies Society in Jerusalem, spoke of the city's complex geographic and demographic make-up.
According to the speakers, successive Israeli governments have pursued policies geared towards increasing the number of Israelis in occupied East Jerusalem. "In terms of diplomacy, there needs to be more efforts to highlight the circumstances of Jerusalem," Dr Azem said. Today, almost half of the more than 400,000 Israeli settlers live in settlements in East Jerusalem. One third of the city has been expropriated for settlement activity, according to the UN, despite that being illegal under international law.
The Obama administration in the US has recently spoken out against the policy, calling for all settlement activity to be stopped. But, while settlements have grown and new ones have been created, Israeli authorities have also restricted Palestinian development in East Jerusalem. A costly, restrictive and lengthy permit process is required for Palestinians to build. Mr Tafakji said this had led to construction in violation of Israeli zoning requirements. The UN estimates that at least 28 per cent of all Palestinian homes fall into this category, with more than 60,000 people in houses that could be demolished by the Israeli authorities.
Between 2000 and 2008, 670 Palestinian-owned buildings were demolished in East Jerusalem because they lacked the proper permits. So far this year, the UN has recorded 19 demolitions, resulting in the displacement of 109 Palestinians, including 60 children. The speakers also raised the issue of the wall that physically and functionally separates East Jerusalem from the West Bank. The city suffers from high unemployment and the wall has contributed to the stifling of economic life, according to Dr Azem.
"We also need more support for our institutions in Jerusalem, including medical, educational and economic," Mr Tafakji said. "But, while the picture might be gloomy, when we walk through the old city we can really feel the Arab, Palestinian culture. Jerusalem does not just belong to Palestinians, but to the whole world." Dr Ghosheh stressed the importance of appreciating Jerusalem's history. The city is one of the holiest for Muslims around the world and before the Kaaba in Mecca, Muslims prayed towards Jerusalem.
It is also home to significant Christian and Jewish sites, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the Western Wall, one of Judaism's holiest places. The city was named the 2009 Arab Capital of Culture. Abdullah Hussein, the ECSSR's executive director, called this a true reflection of the city's cultural significance. "This city has become a point of attraction, but the Israeli occupation also prevents Palestinians from practising their culture," he said.